Trottenberg Gets Good Reception At Senate Confirmation Hearing

Polly Trottenberg, President Biden’s nominee to serve as Deputy Secretary of Transportation, got a good reception March 3 at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

New committee chairman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said that Trottenberg was “eminently qualified for this role, after 30 years of transportation expertise already under her belt, most recently, with the city of New York as Transportation Commissioner from 2014 to 2020. I think she has a great understanding of our nation’s transportation needs…[she] is a tireless advocate for equitable and important transportation projects throughout our major cities…and was responsible for implementing legislation, developing key transportation initiatives, including starting up the TIGER grant program, now known as the BUILD discretionary grant program.”

The panel’s ranking Republican, Roger Wicker (R-MS), said nice things about  Trottenberg but complained that because her paper trail of speeches, articles, policy papers, and other statements was so long, the timeframe that Cantwell had laid out for consideration of the nomination was unusually short, and he hoped that the process would be an exception and not a precedent for future nominations.

After being introduced by her former boss at DOT under President Obama, Ray LaHood, Trottenberg told the panel that “I believe my nearly three decades of operational, managerial, and policymaking experience – including the last seven years as New York City’s Commissioner of Transportation and my prior service at the U.S. Department of Transportation – has prepared me to serve the American people.”

Surface transportation reauthorization. Trottenberg is well-placed to deal with the concerns of Senators regarding surface transportation reauthorization legislation – she was the transportation Legislative Assistant for Sen. Pat Moynihan (D-NY), then the 2nd-ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, when Congress drafted, debated and passed the 1998 TEA21 law. (Maglev Now!) Then she was the Legislative Director for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (then a backbencher) when Congress was considering and passing the 2005 SAFETEA-LU law. And then she was on the other side, as Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Policy, when Congress debated and enacted the 2012 MAP-21 law.

But the biggest problem with surface transportation reauthorization is how to pay for it, and between her own instincts and the object lesson of Secretary Buttigieg’s discussion of the pay-for issue at his own confirmation hearing, Trottenberg refused to make any commitments, or say anything otherwise news-worthy, on that subject.

Credit to Team Trump. Trottenberg actually gave credit to some of the things that the Trump Administration did in transportation. In response to several Senators discussing rural transportation issues, Trottenberg noted the efforts made by the Trump DOT to form a one-stop shop within the Department for rural governments to make it easier for them to apply for DOT grant programs. And in response to concerns about project delivery times and permitting reform, Trottenberg touted the work that both the Obama and Trump Administrations had done in that area (without mentioning that one of Biden’s first executive order repealed all the progress that Trump had made in that area, and replaced with with nothing yet).

Tough questioning on TNCs in NYC. The Commerce panel’s more stridently partisan Republicans mostly were not in attendance at this hearing (Rick Scott R-FL, Mike Lee R-UT) or else decided not to yell at Trottenberg for things above her pay grade (for example, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said she was disappointed in Joe Biden’s China policies, but realized there was no point in yelling at Trottenberg about it). The only real line of harsh questioning came from Ted Cruz (R-TX), and his questions had the virtue of being about something that Trottenberg actually did – as head of the New York City DOT, Trottenberg had to impose numerical limits on rideshare vehicles (Uber and Lyft, etc), following the City Council’s August 2018 enactment of a law to that effect.

Cruz called the NYCDOT caps on the number and the loiter time of TNC vehicles “draconian regulations” and asked why she hadn’t gone after NYC’s “infamous” taxicab medallion system instead. Trottenberg countered that, unlike other cities, NYC had left Uber and Lyft alone when they began service, but eventually came to see evidence of their specific contributions to traffic congestion, which led to the limits.

All politics is local. There the very predictable attempts to get Trottenberg to say nice things about the local projects of Senators, like restoring passenger rail service from New Orleans to Mobile (Roger Wicker, R-MS), upgrading Interstates 11 and 15 (Jacky Rosen, D-NV), and the Hudson River Tunnel (Richard Blumenthal, D-CT). (Blumenthal got Trottenberg to commit to giving Congress an update on the tunnel’s status within a few weeks of her taking office.) Chairman Cantwell mentioned the salmon situation in the Evergreen State. And Trottenberg got to accept the predictable invitation to visit Alaska, extended by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), and tour the extremely odd situation there. (Sullivan did get Trottenberg on record as stating that the Biden Administration “believes strongly” in robust funding for Essential Air Service funding, because Alaska’s unique lack of roads in many areas makes EAS truly “essential” in a way it just can’t be in the lower 48.)

Rosen also asked Trottenberg to prioritize tourism at DOT, which reminded this author of something that historian Alan Pisarski said in our joint interview with Alan Boyd a few years back– that the promotion of tourism stayed with the Commerce Department in 1966 when Congress was separating much of the rest of Commerce out into a new Department of Transportation, which has made syncing federal tourism policy with federal transportation policy more difficult over the years.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Cantwell said that Senators had until the close of business on Wednesday, March 10 to submit questions in writing for Trottenberg, who would then have one week to respond in writing. A Commerce Committee vote to approve her nomination could come during the week of March 22.

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